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Feminine power or feminine weakness? North Indian girls’ struggles with aspirations, agency, and psychosomatic illness



In Hindi-speaking northeastern India, mothers whose daughters are afflicted with a psychosomatic illness referred to locally as “the teeth have clenched” employ standard tropes pertaining to Indian femininity to negotiate their daughters’ agency against the backdrop of new aspirations. An inquiry into two cases I encountered during fieldwork in Varanasi psychiatric clinics in 2001–04 demonstrates how girls’ symptomatic bodies mediated social concerns pertaining to the challenges that women's education and work in public spaces present to non-elite middle-class domestic orders. While these illnesses may have been born of previous traumas or household conflicts, and sometimes were acknowledged as such, mothers’ and daughters’ own concerns about the illnesses focused on what they indicated about the daughters’ potential for social and academic success. In particular, mothers regarded their daughters as possessing either too much or too little “power” or “strength,” and these attributions attached to their anxieties and hopes for their daughters’ futures. In the drama of clenched teeth, disordered bodies, disruptive behavior, and possible futures were folded into the same metaphors of agency.

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